Hunger and Early Satiety: How to Trust Your Gut in Recovery

hunger - profile of a woman looking up, with clouds behind her, with long dark hair, from shoulders up

Early satiety. That’s what my nutritional counselor told me I was experiencing when I felt full. I thought I was honoring my hunger and practicing intuitive eating. She knew I’d been restricting long enough to curb my hunger cues. So she told me exactly what I needed to hear to be rescued from quasi-recovery. That most people can’t go directly from a period of restriction/disordered eating to intuitive eating because they can’t trust their hunger and fullness cues.

I waited until after our session to start crying. For months, I’d followed recovery stories from folks who had insatiable hunger they were finally honoring. I was envious of their ability to clear multiple plates worth of food in a single sitting in an effort to refuel their undernourished bodies. If mine was undernourished, too, why wouldn’t it ask me for food? And why, when I did give it food, did it feel uncomfortably stuffed after just a few bites?

In the beginning, I never felt certain that I was undernourished because I didn’t have the hunger to prove it to myself.

My hormones didn’t lie. My food and body fixation didn’t lie. But my hunger did.

If your hunger hasn’t come yet, eat anyway

I ate anyway. At regular intervals, as prescribed, for months. After two months of full commitment, hunger started visiting me. Unfortunately, she would only visit me right before bed. Choosing to unknowingly ignore her enough times during the day meant that she had to cram in all of her quality time with me when I wanted to sleep. So did I will myself to sleep through her incessant nagging or get up and cram spoonfuls of almond butter in my mouth? The latter, of course.

Three months and many disrupted sleeps later, there was an entire week that passed in which hunger visited me during the day. Every. Single. Day. For every meal, every snack, every extra snack, every extra extra snack. I became reacquainted with her as I ate and ate and ate. Enough so that finally, she left me to sleep without her, complete with a full stomach and an even fuller heart.

Accept the discomfort of your gut

Nourishing yourself after a period of restriction is going to feel like stuffing a pineapple into a tube sock. It’s going to be uncomfortable. You’re going to feel bloated, overstuffed, and possibly constipated. Your metabolism is going to take time to catch up to your new feeding schedule. And you’re going to wonder why you’re doing it (because seriously, why would anyone stuff a pineapple into a tube sock?!).

I spent five months wondering if I would ever not feel like my abdomen was swollen and distended. Putting on “real pants” was genuinely impossible. But in the same week that hunger began announcing herself during the daytime, something amazing happened. My energy started returning, and so did my focus. That whole week felt like a vacation from recovery because it didn’t feel like recovery anymore. It just felt like living.

I can’t ask my body exactly what was happening that week, but it felt like a turning point. Like my body was finally ready to move beyond using the calories to restore years of undernourishment and into using the calories to nourish my present body instead. Moving all that lovely fuel through my gut with comfort and ease. Every week after that, my energy started to stabilize, and my digestion finally started catching up.

Parting thoughts on hunger

Hunger still visits me regularly. I don’t always recognize her in my midday headache or my post-bike-ride fatigue. But if I suspect it might be her, all I have to do is eat. Then, I’m sure. Soon, she comes running up to me to relieve my headache, fill my legs with glycogen, and wag her finger at me for not spotting her sooner.

I’m excited for when I can recognize her every time we pass. After so many years apart, it’s like wrapping up my oldest friend in a tight hug. And this time? I’m not letting her go.

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